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The Warrior Princess. Chapter 5.
By
AnnaMayZing

The Warrior Princess. Chapter 5.

"The two unsuspecting hunters appeared just in front of me, so close I could hear them breathing."

After their victory at the gorge, the Princesses plan a way to enter the city of Pelengrath without being caught by Samerron's Army.

The company rode steadily through the dark hours, pausing only briefly for sustenance and comfort. We were not troubled that night and we made good progress and as the darkness gave way to light on the third daybreak since setting out, the mood was good and camp was made before the sun appeared over the horizon.

As I prepared for rest I noticed that the Eagles were high in the sky, wheeling around, searching for prey. Their loud screeching call giving me a shiver up my spine but somehow also comforting.

Their presence indicated that all was well.

I covered myself with my cloak and closed my eyes, allowing sleep to quickly overtake me.

When I opened my eyes again I felt uneasy. Something was wrong but I couldn't work out what. Astrid and I had settled with our horses on the edge of the main force and some hours had passed as the sun was past its Zenith. Astrid was still asleep alongside her horse and the men I could see were still resting and yet something was bothering me, something had woken me and I couldn't see what.

I lay quietly for a while listening, holding my dagger tightly.

There! I heard a click, the slightest of sounds but someone was creeping about. I lay absolutely still, my cloak serving as camouflage against the rocky ground.

Suddenly a foot appeared right in front of me. It was a booted foot, bound with leather in the style of a footsoldier.

I knew it! Those who had surrendered to us were now going to kill us as we slept!

I waited, quietly then as the foot turned away I leapt up and threw my arm around his neck, holding the dagger to his throat.

“Make a sound and it will be your last!” I hissed.

He froze, fearful for his life.

“What are you doing here?”

“M..my Lady.” he stammered, “I came to find the Princess.”

“You have found her.” I whispered, “Why do you want her?”

He remained silent until I pressed the cold sharp blade more firmly into his throat.

“P...please, My Lady, I mean you no harm. I have some information that may be of help.”

“What information?” I pressed him. He swallowed.

“I heard some of Samerron's men talking before we ambushed you. They were confident about Pelengrath falling within the next few days.”

“Why?” I questioned.

“Please, My Lady, let me go, I am not your enemy.”

Reluctantly I released the pressure of the knife and he visibly relaxed, then turned to me.

“My Lady, they said they were expecting reinforcements to arrive in the next few days. There will be a full-scale assault on the city when they arrive which will be led by Samerron himself!”

By this time, Astrid, who had been awakened by the voices, had joined us.

“When are they expected to arrive?” she asked.

“I don't know, My Lady,” he answered. “They just said the next few days. I am not one of Samerron's men so I couldn't ask. They didn't know I was listening.”

I turned to her.

“We must ride, and fast!” I said, “We must get there before they do!”

The Warrior Princess didn't speak but looked at the footsoldier.

He returned her stare and didn't look away but looked uncomfortable.

Finally, she turned and shouted:

“Halberad... Halberad! Damn it, Where is he? Halberad!”

“My Lady?”

“Ah, there you are. Get the men mounted and prepare to ride immediately. Time is now of the essence.”

“My Lady?”

“Just do it, Halberad, I will explain when all is ready!”

He hurried away, calling the names of his troop leaders as he went.

I hadn't stopped watching the informer.

“Why didn't you tell us sooner?” I asked him.

“My Lady,” he replied quietly, “I had to be careful. I believe there are some who cannot be trusted.

Some of the men who surrendered are afraid that if they help, their families will be killed or...”

he didn't finish.

My eyes narrowed.

“How do I know you can be trusted?”

His jaw dropped.

“Me? I... I told you about the reinforcements. If you couldn't trust me I would have just let you walk into a massacre!”

I waited without speaking. After a pause he continued, his head bowed.

“My...” he swallowed, “My w... my wife, and... and children were taken. They held me with a dagger at my throat whilst...” He paused, his eyes creased with pain. “Whilst they... they...”

I put my hand on his arm.

“It's OK.” I said, “You don't have to go on.”

He looked up at me, eyes awash,

“Yes,” he said, “I do. They took my wife and whilst they held her down, they killed my children. They ran their swords through their tiny bodies and laughed while we watched. My wife screamed and screamed and screamed and screamed until Samerron himself beheaded her with one swift pass of his sword. Then, they turned to the other menfolk and told them that the same would befall their families if they did not obey him. They want to fight against him but they are afraid.”

“Wait here,” I told him and walked a short distance away, with Astrid.

“What do we do?” I asked when out of earshot. “If we take them they will slow us down, they are not horsemen, and clearly, we cannot leave them.”

“Let them go!”

I blinked in surprise.

“Let them go?” I exclaimed, incredulous.

“Yes,” she replied. “Let them go. They are on foot. We will take the horses. Samerron will come from the west and are probably not as close as we are to Pelengrath. They cannot get there any quicker even if they are forewarned so let them go home. They will not harm us.”

We walked back to the man who had not moved.

“We will release your people,” I told him. “They may return to their homes.”

“My Lady.” He bowed to us both, “You show great wisdom and compassion but I would like to ask your favour, if I may be so bold.”

“Ask your wish,” I replied.

“Give me a horse. I will ride to my homeland and try to persuade them to rise up. If they understand there is a chance it might be possible...” he paused and as I was hesitant he continued, “I have nothing left to lose, My Lady.”

I looked at Astrid and she nodded agreement. I turned back.

“Take a horse,” I said, “and may the Gods watch over you.”

 

Astrid and I mounted our respective horses and as we did, Halberad rode up to us.

“All is set, we are ready to ride,” he said.

“Then let us ride like the wind. We have no time to lose.” As I spoke we reined our horses about and spurred them away.

There was no time to waste and we rode at as fast a pace as we could sustain. I was sorry the extra men had been of no help but at least they would not slow us down.

 

The light was gone now but we didn't slow. The news of the reinforcements meant that any risk of being discovered was secondary and as the light began to grow on the fourth day, we didn't stop but continued to ride long into the morning, stopping only when the sun had risen high. We stopped just long enough to get a little sleep and rest the horses and, as the sun fell, to hide behind the horizon, we rode again.

The dawn of the fifth day was slow in coming, Dark clouds had gathered and in the dim light, I knew we were close. We were all exhausted from our long and urgent journey and the ambush had reduced our number. Rest was more important now than ever so we pitched our camp and prayed that rain would not come.

Our rations were desperately low but we had reasoned that we would not need to burden ourselves with supplies for after the battle.

If we defeated Samerron's army we would have food aplenty, if not... then it probably wouldn't matter.

I settled Fleet-Foot then went to find Astrid. She was with Halberad and a few other leaders.

As I approached she turned to me.

“Ah, Anna, I was just going to send Halberad to find you.”

I took her hand for a moment then released it. She turned back to the group.

“We spoke long, before we set out on this quest, and discussed our plans.”

I listened intently as she continued.

“Those plans are now useless! As the journey has progressed, Anna and I have not discussed the situation yet so I will put forward some thoughts.” She turned to me again, “If you are agreeable, Anna.”

I nodded, she was a fine leader and a brave warrior, I had no doubt she had thought long and hard about our predicament, as had I.

She turned back.

“I am sad to say that we can no longer rely on the Lord, Fabian. He should have met us after the first night's travel but there has been no sign of him. I fear the worst.” She paused, sadness showing in her face. Taking a deep breath and drawing herself up, she went on. “This means we no longer have the advantage of the Draaken. I have watched and listened as we travelled and it would appear that Samerron is so confident of victory he has not sent out any scouts or used their Draaken. This will be his undoing as we still have the advantage of surprise so I propose that we attack the enemy tonight. We are still a few hours ride away but if we ride easily and aim to arrive at first light, we should be able to do them some serious harm.”

“My Lady?” One of the leaders raised his hand and Astrid turned to him, “We are just nine hundred. There must be thousands of them ranged around the city.”

“Yes, I have thought of that,” she replied, “Sadly, we have no choice. If we don't do this now and Pelengrath falls, it will not matter how many we are, it will be the end.”

“But...” Astrid raised her hand and he was silenced.

“The plan was for the Lady Anna to take the Draaken and fly it into the city. This she cannot now do so we will attack...” as she spoke she turned to the man who had questioned her, “...and create a diversion that will draw the enemy in. Anna will take a few men and seek one of the secret ways back into the city where she will warn her father about the approaching foes. He will gather his forces around him and attack the enemy, hopefully before we are destroyed.”

She turned to me again.

“Anna?”

“I cannot think of a better way.” I said, “My only hope is that we defeat the enemy before the reinforcements arrive. If not...” I said no more.

There was silence. No-one spoke, no-one moved until;

“So be it.” Astrid stood tall and proud, “We ride as soon as darkness falls. Rest, Gentleman, for tomorrow we fight!”

The group dispersed and left Astrid and me alone. She turned to me and took my hands in hers.

Looking into my eyes, she spoke softly.

“I have only one fear about all this, Anna. If I am to die I want to be with you. I am not afraid of death but only of not seeing you again.”

I squeezed her hand firmly.

“My love, I will do all that is in my power to protect you and I make you this promise. Should anything happen to you whilst I am away, I will find you and be with you.”

She smiled, warmly before speaking softly.

“And I promise you the same.”

We walked back to the horses, and lay together, under our cloaks. I put my arms around her and held her close as I drifted off into a fitful sleep.

As I slept I dreamed I heard a far off cry, like the first night in the Great Hall in the forest of Mallagen. I opened my eyes but all was still and peaceful.

Astrid must have felt me stir.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Oh, just dreaming I suppose.” I clasped my arms around her and squeezed her gently.

“Mmm...” she let out a little mew of pleasure before standing.

“Come,” she said, rising to her feet. “We must prepare for battle.” She held out her hand and helped me up.

We stood momentarily, face to face, hand in hand. There was no necessity for words, each of us knowing the others thoughts.

“Ehem.” Halberad cleared his throat to indicate his presence.

Our hands fell away as we turned our heads simultaneously towards him.

“We are ready, My Lady,” he said to neither of us in particular.

We both nodded and smiled. Our hearts were heavy, for now, we were at the point of no return. We would ride the last few miles and straight into battle. All the talking was over, there was nothing left to say but Halberad didn't leave us. He just stood as if there was something on his mind.

“Is there something else, Halberad?” Astrid asked him. He shuffled his feet awkwardly.

“Well,” he stalled for a moment, head bowed and hands fidgeting. “If I may be so bold. I just wanted to say, My Lady,” he turned towards me, “that although you have only been with us a matter of days, we have all seen the bond of friendship that has developed between you and the Princess. I, well we, all wanted to say that whatever happens we will follow you both to the death and we wanted you to know we could not have anyone more capable to lead us. Your fathers would be proud of you both.”

We looked at each other and smiled widely. I spoke first.

“Halberad, thank you so much. I am sure Princess Astrid will agree,” she nodded as I turned to her, “that we are both proud and more than happy that you and the men who fight with us are the best we could possibly have. Take our blessings to them all and wish them God speed and our undying gratitude.”

As he turned and left I turned back to Astrid and we stood face to face for a moment before suddenly throwing our arms around each other and holding each other tight. We didn't speak but took a deep breath before separating, smiling and turning away to mount our respective steeds.

I stared straight ahead as I gently rode away, I couldn't look back at her, not knowing if I would ever see her again.

By the time we were all ready to break camp, the sun was sinking behind the hills.

I rode slowly away with six men chosen to help me get through to the secret gate in the city wall.

No-one spoke as we rode into the darkness. I had no notion of how much the enemy knew of us but I did know that he was aware that I would come back and would probably have been searching for evidence of how I got out undetected. Getting back in secretly was likely to be much harder.

I looked up at the black night sky. There were no twinkling stars as there had been on the night I left, just thick black clouds. Strangely, although the blackness should be more favourable I felt uneasy. The very air felt heavy and oppressive, warmer than of late. A storm was coming and that would favour Samerron's greater numbers. We needed stealth and ease of movement, not rain and mud.

Out of the darkness, trees began to loom ahead. We had reached the great forest that surrounded one side of Pelengrath.

Here we dismounted, for now, stealth was of utmost importance. I bound Fleet-Foot's hooves, as before, and bade my six companions to do the same.

Before we moved further into the forest I listened carefully. The trees creaked in the gentle breeze that was getting up and I heard animals scurrying through the undergrowth, but nothing else.

We began to walk along the path through the trees, leading the horses. It wasn't a visible path but a way through the dense undergrowth that was almost invisible to any but those who knew of it. And in the darkness, none but the very experienced could follow it.

My six protectors followed close behind me, in single file. The forest was so thick here that to stray from the path could mean being lost for hours, days even. In this part, we would be hard to find, even in daylight but nevertheless, sound carries, even in thick woodland, and stealth was imperative!

 

We moved slowly and carefully, stopping often to listen, the darkness oppressive but comforting. We could see nothing but, equally importantly, we could not be seen!

The hours passed slowly, every step an effort but then, a snap and rustle! I froze, listening.

There it was again! I drew the dagger from my arm and the sword from its sheath and waited with bated breath. We were so close, we couldn't fail now!

I had no need to speak, my companions knew distinctively what to do. They had already melted into the trees with the horses, ready to spring.

Out of the darkness, a shape grew but it wasn't a man, It was a pig, a wild boar! I breathed a sigh of relief staying still so not to startle the unsuspecting creature.

It passed close by, it's snout snuffling through the dead leaves and twigs, searching for any morsel of food it may find. As we waited, the darkness was beginning to give way to dawn. The black gradually easing into a to deep blue. We couldn't wait for the pig to leave so I decided to try to scare it away with a gentle movement.

Suddenly, the pig gave a loud squeal ran a few steps then fell heavily onto its side.

“Haw haw haw.” A coarse laugh rang out. “Got it with one shot, and not even light yet.”

“Pah,” came the gruff reply. “A lucky shot.”

“Lucky? Lucky? If it was left to you we'd all starve. I'll give you lucky.”

I pressed back against the tree, my cloak camouflaging me in the growing dawn.

The two unsuspecting hunters appeared just in front of me, so close I could hear them breathing.

“'Ere, wait a minute, what's this?” One stopped suddenly and bent, “Something else has been 'ere.”

I gripped the hilt of my sword firmly and once again, held my breath. They were too far apart to take them both and I didn't know where my men were.

“What yer mean, somethin' else?” said the other, “Another animal? These parts is teeming with wildlife. What d'yer expect?”

“Shut up, Stupid!” the first one hissed, “Not animal, people. People with horses!”

There was no answer from the second, he was dead, having passed too close to where I was hiding. The razor-sharp dagger silencing him instantly as it sliced through his throat in one easy movement. My hand covered his mouth as the blood gurgled into his windpipe, and he slid to his knees, falling backwards onto the soft undergrowth.

“I told you to be quiet!” were the last words the first one uttered before the heavy sword blade separated his head from his body as one of my protectors suddenly appeared from behind the tree beside him.

I wiped my blade clean on the dead man's jerkin.

“Come on,” I urged the others, picking up my sword from where I had let it fall, and sheathing it. “There is no time to lose. We must get to the gate before these two are missed!”

Crossing the trail into the woods on the other side, I took Fleet-Foot's reins and led him back onto the path.

It was easier in the growing light but that also meant it was easier to be seen.

Speed was now more important than stealth so we mounted our horses and rode carefully through the towering, creaking trees.

Shortly, I raised my hand, bring Fleet-Foot to a stand.

The others came up around me.

“It is here,” I said, “The entrance. “There is a hidden tunnel covered by a wooden gate under the undergrowth. It is not easy to find but it is here.”

As I spoke, in the distance, I heard shouting and screams carried on the ever strengthening wind.

Astrid! The battle had begun and we had not yet entered the city!

“My Lady, Here!”

I jumped down and ran over, stopping dead, a huge tree had fallen and was partially covering the gate which opened outwards!

“We have to move it!” I shouted. “We have to get in, It's our only chance!”

I began pulling at the tree.

“My Lady, wait, we cannot move it that way, it is too heavy.”

“We have to, Ereward,” I pleaded. “Come on!”

“The horses, My lady, use the horses.” He ran to his own horse and brought him to the tree. We were soon joined by five more.

Using the ropes that each one carried, we attached the horses and guided them by the reins. They were not working them hard but with their combined effort and our encouragement, the tree began to move and soon there was enough space to open the gate sufficiently to squeeze the horses through, one at a time.

Behind us, the gate crashed closed. We were in and now we had to ride like the wind.

We lit the torches we had brought, knowing the tunnel to be totally unlit, then galloped as hard as our steeds could manage, hoping against hope that as we reached the other end we would not be shot down by my own people whom I had not been able to warn of our return.

After what seemed an eternity a pinpoint of light appeared in the distance, steadily growing as we galloped towards it.

The tunnel opened out into a cavern beneath the city, used to store supplies for the winter. Now, after the long siege, it should be almost empty but had been used as a makeshift hospital for those wounded in battle or suffering sickness due to malnourishment.

As the light ahead grew and the cavern approached I feared for what I would find so I slowed to a slow walk and finally stopped at the entrance.

What I saw before me was beyond anything I had imagined!

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